Traces of India explored how 19th-century European photographers captured the great architectural sites of India.
Photography was introduced into India soon after the invention of the daguerreotype in Europe in 1839. A host of talented practitioners of the new technology included official British government photographers such as Colonel Thomas Biggs and Captain Linnaeus Tripe, amateurs like Dr. John Murray, and commercial photographers such as Samuel Bourne and Felice Beato. These individuals and many others produced a vast body of work documenting the landscape and architecture of India, creating not just aesthetic objects or records of the region’s past, but artifacts of the complex cultural and political forces that shaped colonial India.
Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900 presents more than two hundred master photographs taken by travelers, military surveyors, and professional studios within the context of the British colonial era and examines how images laid the historical foundations—real or imagined—on which an ordered empire, rather than an assemblage of colonial trade relationships, might be constructed.
This exhibition presents some of the greatest architectural sites of the Indian subcontinent— from Mughal, Jain, and Sikh monuments in the north to Hindu temples of South Asia, and Buddhist monuments in central India— and explores the social, political and anthropological role of images in the creation of national identity. ‘Traces of India’ includes such masterpieces as Felice Beato’s exquisite views of the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple, and monuments in the city of Lucknow; Dr. John Murray’s three-plate panorama of the 17th-century Pearl Mosque in the Agra fort; and a remarkable 21-plate panorama by Captain Linnaeus Tripe recording an inscription that runs along the base of the 11th-century Rajarajesvara temple in Thanjavur.
The exhibition is organized around six themes. The first, Projecting India, begins chronologically with the 18th century and displays encounters of British artists with Indian historic landscapes. It features engravings and aquatints by William Hodges, Thomas and William Daniell, and Samuel Davis, and photographs by Dr. John Murray, Felice Beato, Baron Alexis de La Grange, and Samuel Bourne. This section of the exhibition illustrates the important role of photographs as souvenirs of distant India.
The second theme, Capturing India’s Past, demonstrates how photography was used to record and preserve Indian historic buildings, transforming them from stone to paper. India presented Western historians with a mesmerizing number of ancient monuments endangered by time. Survey photographs of Indian architecture not only provided accurate representations of Buddhist and Hindu temples and their inscriptions, but also brought the perilous state of these ruins to public attention. Stunning works by British officers and draftsmen, and by photographers Major Robert Gill, Captain Linnaeus Tripe, Colonel Thomas Biggs and Dr. William Pigou, illustrate the correlation between photography, the preservation of architecture, and the creation of a western historiography of India’s ancient monuments.
Museumizing India, the third theme, shows how the cultural ownership implicit in British protection of ancient Indian monuments transformed India into a kind of museum in which ruins were left intact, on site, while reproduction in the form of photographs, drawings, and plaster casts were transferred to collections and archives in England. The exhibition brings into question the role of photographs as copies or replicas of buildings and their function of providing knowledge about India to European institutions.
In considering the fourth theme, Re-imagining India After Independence, a selection of images from popular Indian culture, such as calendar art and clips of Bollywood films, are displayed to explore contemporary Indian visual culture and its links with 19th-century architectural images in the realms of religion, tourism, and politics. This portion of the exhibition looks at how architecture participates symbolically in post-independence India and how the imagery of devotional sites and colonial sites appropriated from the 19th century is used for new, national purposes.
The fifth theme, Staging Indian Architecture, shows photographs and documents of selected world fairs in which India was exhibited through arts and crafts in temporary pavilions. The exhibits demonstrate the appreciation of ornament and decoration in Islamic and Rajput architectural traditions, which was replicated in England following the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851. Photographs from five world fairs are featured, from the Crystal Palace to the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition in London.
The final section, Memorializing the Raj, demonstrates how photographs of Indian architecture and sites of war were often vehicles for collective remembrance by the British community of its experiences in India. They were not only views of distant times and places or documentary records of ancient buildings; they were also memorials to battlegrounds and fallen political regimes. The Indian Rebellion against the British (1857–1858), codified as a “mutiny,” generated a vast production of views of India as sites of war. Photographs of Agra, Lucknow, and Delhi by Felice Beato and John Murray are displayed together with newspapers, watercolors, and popular forms of entertainment, suggesting the value of these photographs as cultural artifacts and traces of colonial memory.
Traces of India is guest curated by Maria Antonella Pelizzari, former associate curator of photographs at the CCA, and designed by New York architect Lindy Roy. This exhibition was made possible with generous support from the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director’s Discretionary Fund, Navin and Pratima Doshi, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, NPA, Sonya Doshi and Kevin McCarthy, Anil and Geeta Mehta, Bhupen and Surbala Randeria, Dinker and Aruna Shah, Uka Solanki, Vikram and Anjana Kamdar, Thomas and Sarah Peter, and additional private donors. An accompanying book co-published by the CCA and the Yale Center for British Art will be available in the Fowler Museum Store.